To Show Empathy, Stop Saying "At Least..."

“In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen — really seen.” ~ Dr. Brené Brown



If you are anything like me, you’ve compiled a summer reading list…that you haven’t started. Every summer holds the promise of available time to dive into non-academic, entirely leisure reading—then I get distracted with kids’ activities and travel and unexpected work. It’s a poor excuse, and my stack of books sits there, judging me.


One particular book on my list is Dr. Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. It feels like a great marriage between research on a topic I study—compassion and high-quality personal connections—and practical and developmental life advice. I happened across it on one of my favorite websites, Brain Pickings, which spotlighted a short animated video Dr. Brown did on empathy and connection. While admittedly I haven’t yet read the book, I highly recommend dedicating the three minutes to watch the video.


In it, Dr. Brown explains the difference between empathy and sympathy: “Empathy fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection.” Quite practically, she identifies that an empathic response rarely, if ever begins with the phrase “at least…”, which minimizes someone’s feelings. Responses in general don’t make someone feel better, making a connection does. And in order to make a connection, we have to allow ourselves to be authentic and vulnerable, which is uncomfortable and ambitious and challenging. Dr. Brown offers four qualities of empathy:


  1. Perspective taking

  2. Staying out of judgment

  3. Recognition of emotion in others

  4. Communicating that recognition


So, if you come across a colleague who seems down, or is struggling with a life or work-related event, avoid trying to silver-line their problems; instead, connect through shared vulnerability.